10 March 2013

Guest Blog: William Burton McCormick

This week, we're welcoming author  William Burton McCormick, whose latest title is Lenin's Harem. Bill is offering a free copy of the book to a lucky blog visitor. Here's the blurb: 

Lenin’s Harem is the story of  Wiktor Rooks, a ruined aristocrat swept up in the chaos of World War I, who by twist of fate finds himself a member of the elite guard of the Russian Revolution, a group of Latvian soldiers known colloquially as “Lenin’s Harem” for their loyalty to the Bolshevik cause. Concealing his aristocratic past from his enemies, Wiktor hides in plain sight from his enemies while the Russian Empire crumbles around him. But where does he go when the revolutionaries win?

“Broad, ambitious, and plenty good.”- The Providence Sunday Journal

**Q&A with William Burton McCormick**

What made you a writer?

I think I was a storyteller first, as a boy, a young man, and the writing came later as means to deliver those stories. From Homer on down the best writing, for me, has always followed the cadences of speech. I think if I were a more confident speaker, I’d be on the stage telling my tales before an audience. But I’m not so outgoing. Instead, I write them down in my study, trying to choose my words down to the syllable to affect timing and delivery. I really come at the work from a tradition of oral storytelling. I read of course, but a lot of my inspirations come from listening. And from writers whose narrative voice mimics real speech - such as Twain.

Nearly all your writing has an historical setting. Why historical fiction?

History has so many fascinating tales and so many odd corners and places with wonderfully shadowy characters worth exploring. There are numerous names referred to in the history books for which we really have only bits of information. Frustrating to the historian, I’m sure, but we fiction writers need not be so strict in our work.  We can flesh out these characters,  pluck them from the mists of time, put them in the light and tell the stories that the history books only hint at.

More seriously, of course, historical fiction allows us the leeway to make connections between our past and our present in an entertaining, and sometimes thought provoking way.  The genre, at its best, comments on who we are by showing us who we were.

Do you find it difficult to write dialogue from a century ago?

Well, I don’t write dialogue from a century ago. I write dialogue for a modern audience in a style that is natural to them.  Of course, I eliminate modern slang and trendy euphemisms, but I think deliberately trying to ape an archaic style usually makes the dialogue seem stilted and takes the reader out of the story. You always end up with some sort of stiff, faux-Shakespearean conversations.

For example, the characters in my novel “Lenin’s Harem” are speaking in Latvian, Russian and German. It would be counterproductive for me to try to emulate the grammatical structures and rhythms of those languages. As a writer my first priority is to create character. To do so, I must use all the tools of English as properly as I can. Trying to make English sound like German, for effect, I feel, is only a distraction to the reader. I want them thinking about the characters and their emotions, not the intrusive writer.

You mention “Lenin’s Harem.” Who or what exactly was this group?

“Lenin’s Harem” was a nickname given to the elite Red Riflemen of the Russian Revolution. They were a regiment of Latvians who survived the trenches of World War I to become the Bolsheviks’ most dependable soldiers in the early years of their revolution. When Lenin had really no one else to depend upon, he called the Latvian Riflemen.

And then Stalin murdered them.

This is what my novel of the same name is about. I find the title a bit ironic. The Latvian Riflemen were called “Lenin’s Harem” because of their loyalty to Lenin. But, of course, a harem has a dubious relationship with their master. He may profess love, but they are enslaved to him, and ultimately will be discarded. Such was the case with Latvia’s greatest soldiers and the first heroes of the Soviet Union.

The novel spans thirty-five years including both World Wars and the Russian Revolution. With so grand a historical sweep, how were you able to keep the narrative manageable and engaging?

Lenin’s Harem does have a large scope, but I tried very hard to keep the narrative fixed to my protagonist, Wiktor Rooks, his personal story and those of his immediate comrades and family. The book is written in first person, so all of the events are filtered through his eyes alone. This point of view keeps me from cheating in my storytelling or “head-hopping” from character to character as they say.  It locks in and focuses the narrative.  

I think the most important thing in any historical novel is to remember it is indeed a novel first and an historical snapshot second. There’s a love story here and family saga set against the birth and death of nations.  The first responsibility of a writer is to character and storytelling. I think too many historical novelists become so proud of their hard-earned research that they sometimes bury their story under facts and digressions. I know I’ve felt the temptation to slow the pace and warble on about what I’ve learned or to slip in those wonderful nuggets of information that are fascinating but not really relevant to the story. Cutting them out is one of the most excruciating parts of editing, but an engaging narrative with well-realized characters must be paramount. Your research can be spot on, your themes relevant, but it won’t matter if the audience has closed the book.

What sort of reader do you feel will be drawn to Lenin’s Harem?

Well, certainly those interested in the Russian Revolution, World War I and World War II, or the Baltic States, but really anyone who appreciate a character-driven story set against the backdrop of those turbulent times, from classics such as Dr. Zhivago and All Quiet on the Western Front, to modern works such as White Blood, Birdsong, and The People’s Act of Love.

The Latvian Riflemen are controversial figures in their homeland to this day. What view of them did you take in your novel?

Yes, they are polarizing figures in Latvia. Some see the Red Latvian Riflemen as heroes, local boys who defied all odds just to survive, helped to create the largest nation on earth, and to some degree played kingmakers. Others view them as one of the great symbols of the Red Army, an army that subjugated the Latvian people for decades. In my book, I try to portray them first as people, young men swept up the great conflicts of their time. History wasn’t on their minds, simple survival was. As to their legacy, I’ll let the reader decide.

Connect with William Burton McCormick
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William Burton McCormick was born in Maryland and raised in Nevada. He holds a degree in Ancient Studies from Brown University and an MA in Novel Writing from the University of Manchester. His historical mini-thrillers have appeared or are forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine and the anthology “Blood Promises and Other Commitments.” A world traveler, William has lived in seven countries including three years spent in Latvia and Russia to research and write his debut novel “Lenin’s Harem.”

“McCormick takes us inside lives that would otherwise be not simply invisible to us but unimaginable." --Suzannah Dunn, author of “The Queen of Subtleties.”